Unintended consequences of limits on government travel

Joe Davidson
Columnist February 27, 2013

Concerned about government travel expenses?

Here’s a thought.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Slice agency budgets, across the board.

Tell employees not to work one or two days a week. Don’t pay them for that time.

This recipe not only will reduce federal employee travel, it also will make an across-the-board cut in their morale and do a disservice to American taxpayers.

There is a better way to reduce government travel expenses, even if Congress can’t find a better way to run the government than the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration, which are set to take effect Friday.

But going too far, cutting too much travel spending in ways that aren’t smart, can have unintended bad consequences — witness the sequester.

A good way to cut travel spending is to put it under a microscope. That’s been the case since top leaders of the General Services Administration resigned or were fired in April after a report about excessive spending on a 2010 agency conference off the Las Vegas Strip.

The next month, the Office of Management and Budget directed agencies to reduce travel spending for fiscal 2013 by at least 30 percent from 2010 levels. The lower levels are to be maintained through 2016.

Because of the GSA’s bad publicity, senior management approval now is required for conference spending over certain levels, and this year agencies began online posting of annual conference spending over $100,000, Daniel I. Werfel, the OMB’s controller, told a House hearing Wednesday.

Apparently, those and other measures are paying off.

Travel spending dropped by $2 billion from 2010 to 2012, Werfel said.

“These reductions have been the result of reducing overall travel, and also ensuring that required travel is completed in a cost-effective manner,” he told the Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on the federal workforce, U.S. Postal Service and the census.

Congress also is curtailing its travel. House members will be allowed overseas trips only to review military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, my colleague Paul Kane reported Wednesday.

Agencies are cutting conference expenses in various ways and some of them make good sense. But there’s a danger that clamping down too hard on federal employee travel could be counterproductive.

Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.) sounded a note of caution. “As we work to ensure oversight on travel expenditures, we also should work to preserve the many benefits of appropriate travel, which can promote collaboration and innovation,” Holt, a physicist, told the panel.

“As a scientist, I know firsthand how important scientific conferences and meetings are,” he said. “The informal conversations, as well as the formal presentations and poster sessions that go into a conference among scientists from different institutions, lead to new collaborations that have the promise of new discoveries. These are not fancy junkets.”

Pointing to the Government Spending Accountability Act (H.R. 313) and the OMB’s May 2012 guidance to agencies, Holt said they “initiate prohibitions and impediments that would hinder American scientists’ ability to collaborate and communicate with scientists at other institutions and laboratories.”

The specter of the GSA conference continues to hang over government travel.

The OPM’s guidance, said subcommittee Chairman Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), “if fully and responsibly implemented, can potentially help save the taxpayers billions of dollars by reducing travel and conference costs that may not be necessary for a federal employee to discharge the duties of their office. . . .

“We want to ensure a GSA Las Vegas-type conference never happens again,” he said.

No one wants another GSA splurge.

Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (Mass.), the top Democrat on the subcommittee, also warned about “negative impacts on agency mission and the services provided to the American people that restrictions on travel and conference spending may cause.”

In a letter to Lynch and Farenthold, the Government Managers Coalition said many federal employees require the training and certification available at conferences. “For these positions, failure to maintain professional accreditation could result in a skills lapse or, worse, a loss of security clearance,” the group said.

A Partnership for Public Service study on “The State of the FDA Workforce” pointed to that danger. “For scientists, keeping up with changes and advancements in their field is of utmost importance,” the November report said.

Although the Food and Drug Administration says it supports professional development, heavy workloads, light budgets and supervisor discouragement can prevent employees from taking the travel needed to enhance their development, according to the report. That leads to lower morale, which can’t be good for service.

Draconian restrictions on federal travel “is yet again penny wise and pound foolish behavior,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership.

He understands the need to cut government expenses, including excessive government travel. But “the push to save travel dollars,” he said, “is not the way to create better government.”

(The Partnership has a content sharing relationship with The Washington Post.)

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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